In Republican treasurer’s race, Sen. Buck Clarke’s experience faces off against David McRae’s bucks

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report for America

Businessman David McRae (L) and Sen. Buck Clarke (R)

The television ad for state treasurer candidate Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, opens with the candidate on a porch swing with his wife, Paula. Over the next 30 seconds, Clarke, an accountant and Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, squeezes in mentions of his work and legislative experience; he cracks a joke about his thriftiness and the wide-lapeled sportcoat he said he’s worn since the 1970s, and he ends with this cheeky slogan:

“If you’ll send one more Buck to the treasurer’s office, I’ll look after the rest of them,” Clarke repeated. “And you know, I’ve had people everywhere I’ve been mention my ad to me. It’s a good (ad).”

It’s also the only one that Clarke, who raised just under $350,000 through July, has budgeted before the Republican primary. In contrast, his opponent, Madison businessman David McRae, has produced six different ads. There’s a humorous one with his daughter and a heartfelt one with his wife, Katherine. There’s one outlining his plan for the state, and, most notably, the one where Gov. Phil Bryant endorses him.

At first glance, Clarke would seem the most likely establishment pick. A well-liked conservative and the Senate’s top budget writer, “Buck’s a little more qualified than we’re used to seeing” in candidates for state treasurer, said Hinds County Republican Party Chair Pete Perry.

But in down-ballot races like this one, money often talks louder than experience, and McRae, whose great-grandfather founded the eponymous department store chain, has plenty of it. As of July, he had donated $1.7 million to his own campaign.

“With a down-ticket race even half million dollars can do it because you don’t have to (run on your policies) the way you do with governor or even lieutenant governor,” Perry said. “If they recognize your name more than the other person’s name—and they feel good about that name—you turn that into votes.”

Many Mississippians are likely to recognize McRae’s name. The candidate has saturated all eight media markets in the state, paying just under $1 million for airtime. By contrast, Clarke has spent around $200,000 on television airtime.

And much like name recognition gives candidates credibility, so does simply having money, one reason some candidates will “lend” money to their own campaigns with the intention of never spending it. In 2011, Gulfport businessman Dave Dennis, who was challenging then-Lt. Gov. Bryant for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, reinforced his war chest with a $450,000 loan—the same amount he later repaid himself.

“People like to support a winner,” said Brad White, chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and former chairman of the state Republican Party. “And a campaign that’s well funded and has more than enough resources to wage a strong fight clearly is at an advantage over the campaign that doesn’t.”

But, White points out, individual contributions are still the gold standard in campaign funding. For Clarke, who raised his $350,000 almost exclusively from individuals, that’s good news. McRae has raised about half that from individual contributions.

“Ideally a candidate wants to be able to raise the money from donors because it’s a show of support. It means that people bought into their campaign and message,” White said.

“But money spends whether it’s other people’s donations or it’s self-financed. If it’s spent wisely it nets the same positive effect.”

Both candidates have leaned into the images suggested by their campaign finance reports. On the stump, Clarke plays the affable, experienced conservative, playing up his experience chairing Senate Appropriations.

“I just feel I’ve learned a lot the last 16—especially the last 8 years—why let it go to waste? Why not try to help Mississippi? (Chairing Appropriations) helps you understand how the whole thing is put together. You can see how the whole state functions,” Clarke told Mississippi Today.

McRae, in contrast, emphasizes his success managing his family’s investments and vows to bring transparency to the treasurer’s office—though when asked to quantify that success the candidate demures.

“Unfortunately I can’t/ I have four partners and it’s up to them, and they would vote no on that,” McRae told Mississippi Today. “But our success speaks for itself. We’ve had 15 years of positive growth. We’ve outrun the market.”

McRae is enthusiastic about the job. This is his second run at the Republican nomination, and he said he and his wife began planning for his 2019 run less than a month after his 2015 primary loss to current state Treasurer Lynn Fitch. And he isn’t naive about the advantages that self-funding has conferred on his candidacy or the role it played in earning Bryant’s endorsement.

“I’m a self-financer. That’s appealing to the governor,” McRae said. “And there’s two philosophies behind that. I will never personally ask anyone to invest in me if I haven’t invested in myself — that’s how I run my business. And I’m not beholden to anybody.”

So far, Bryant has weighed in on just two other competitive Republican primaries, endorsing his close friend, Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, for secretary of state and his lieutenant governor, Tate Reeves — albeit before former state Supreme Court Justice Bill Waller Jr. had entered and made the race competitive. Bryant’s spokesperson told Mississippi Today that he would wait to endorse a candidate for attorney general until after the hotly contested primary.

In a tacit acknowledgement of the weight of Bryant’s endorsement, just a week after the governor announced his support for McRae, former Gov. Haley Barbour endorsed Clarke, praising his “serious experience and accomplishments” and writing in an editorial for the Clarion-Ledger that McRae “has a great deal of family money and is advertising heavily in an effort to win political office.”

McRae, however, is hardly the only candidate self-financing a race for statewide office this year. Public Service commissioner for the Southern District Sam Britton is running for secretary of state with over $700,000 of his own money against the $450,000 Watson has raised. Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor with nearly $1 million of his own funding. But it’s the one where the differences, in terms of funding and experience, are most stark.

Still, there’s precedent for an investment in this race to pay off. Current state Treasurer Lynn Fitch fueled her 2011 campaign in large part with $250,000 in funds from her family.

Fitch, who’s relying on her strong statewide name recognition in her bid for Attorney General, may be a good example of why the bottom office on the ballot is worth an investment. Her predecessor was Reeves, the current lieutenant governor, whose outsize fundraising gubernatorial nominee.

“Offices like treasurer, auditor, those are stepping stones to higher office,” Perry said.

“You want to have supporters, and you want to have money. But if I had to choose between the two, I’d choose money.”